The red-ink solution

You can tell how seriously Congress takes President Bush’s late-in-the-game admonitions on restraining federal spending.

The president earlier this year asked for $92.2 billion in emergency spending, mostly for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hurricane relief. The House actually trimmed that amount slightly, but when the Senate finished with it, the bill had grown to $109 billion. And when Bush threatened to veto that amount, the Senate passed it, 77-21, anyway.

The bill now goes to a joint House-Senate conference committee to be reconciled with the smaller House version, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert solemnly promised that he “has no intention of joining in a spending spree,” which makes you wonder where he’s been for the last five years while discretionary federal spending _ that part of the federal budget over which Congress has direct control _ has grown by over a third.

True, the bill will probably be cut in conference. The key question is how and by how much. The Senate recklessly added projects, knowing some probably wouldn’t make it. In a fit of fiscal rectitude, it killed only one, $15 million for promotion of Gulf Coast seafood. Others, like $700 million to relocate an already rebuilt rail line in Mississippi, are likely candidates for the chop.

While the president professes shock at the profligacy of the Senate’s emergency measure, he is largely to blame. Except for some of the hurricane-relief money, most of this spending, and that includes the military operations, is not a must-pass emergency but should be part of the regular appropriations process. In essence, the president offered the senators a free ride and they took it.

Keep in mind that projects the conferees cut will likely reappear later in the year attached to other bills. But the president must stick to his $92.2 billion figure; even a symbolic victory can be important. Bush has made veto threats before, but never in his presidency made good on them – and that bloated Senate bill is the result. Try the veto pen, Mr. President. You might like it.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)